Shook Beyond Words

How the language of the internet, forged in emotion, shapes who we are

by James Tyner ■ Dec. 11, 2018

“Good morning, world. I’m dead inside.”

Gesturing grandly, Jarod Majeika announced his emotional state to the world from a forested area near his home in Rhode Island. The then-high school student wore a black backpack and a t-shirt bearing a map of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. White earphones hung from his ears.

“hte jarod,” as he was known, made this pronouncement on Vine, the Twitter-owned looping video social network where he had more than 270,000 followers. By the time Vine shut down in 2017, Majeika’s videos had been viewed roughly 200 million times, he said. The 19-year-old still has a large following online, numbering more than 12,000 on Instagram and 29,000 on Twitter.

But this story isn’t about Vine, Majeika, or his followers. It’s about that announcement, a proclamation of emotional despair twisted into humor for the world to see. To feel dead inside is to feel detached. It’s a state of internal ruin.

On the internet, that’s funny.

Vine by Jarod Majeika. Used with permission.

There are a myriad of ways to turn emotional extremes into humor for the masses online. Beside being dead, you could also be “shook,” or “feel attacked,” or wonder “why am I like this?” The modern language of the internet provides all sorts of options to overplay emotions and overreact to experiences. Thanks to contemporary meme culture, there’s a different kind of energy in these interactions, a sense of shared excitement and shared despair.

sometimes i think abt the sheer amount of vines filmed in poorly lit parking lots/gas stations & scream about the virtual reality we live in

— jarod (@jarodzsz) March 6, 2017

For many young people, memes are social currency. They’re sent back and forth at all hours, creating blips of real-world distraction on the other end. Algorithms on Instagram and Facebook have adapted themselves to our tastes, serving an endless assortment whenever we please. And the memes can bring people together.

“If you like a common topic, then obviously friendship will start from there,” said Justin Yoon, a 12-year-old middle school student in Georgia. “One day you open Instagram and there’s like 200 notifications, and you start scrolling down and they’re all memes.

“People can make memes by what they’re going through right now,” he added. “Not all memes have to be funny.”

Many of these images — and increasingly, videos — are self-deprecating. They do things like turn Sesame Street characters into symbols of self-loathing, reflect on the heartache of unrequited love, or make bats into vessels of emotional insecurity. This part of the internet isn’t so much a glimpse into a perfect world as a repository for anxieties about this one.

“I don’t really think of them as two distinct worlds anymore,” Majeika said.

Learn the lingo

From an online subculture and into the real world, this language is used to convey excitement and despair




in real English


In the course of creating and sharing, the internet crafted a language of emotion that veils the insecurities that lie within. People often use memes as “‘subtext’ to communicate their feelings, particularly negative and difficult emotions,” according to a 2014 study of cat memes by researcher Kate Miltner of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication.

Today, efforts to convey negativity online through the language of memes have grown more advanced. Through sayings like “I feel attacked,” content creators and consumers have uncovered a versatile reaction to any of life’s many triggers, shielding themselves from the foes of their mental health while performing shock in response to anything that comes their way. Using the meme language, though, crafts humor out of a touchy subject.

“You’re still feeling the things you’re feeling when you say that kind of stuff,” said Michelle Ho, a 21-year-old nursing student in Modesto, California. “It’s just like a filter over what you’re actually feeling.”

i'm captain shook rn..... the shook slinging slasher... i'm playing chess but the gag is i'm going to use my SHOOK to take ur queen...

— jarod (@jarodzsz) August 3, 2016

To be fair, not everyone is like this. But for many people in their twenties and younger, like Majeika, internet culture and real life are deeply intertwined.

“I’ve spent like six years of my life just tweeting or posting things, having that as a really central part of my identity,” he said. “So when I interact with that as part of my world, it always seeps into my real world.”

But how do these dramatic words affect the way young people think in the real world? The way they perceive themselves and their emotions? Is the sharing of memes and the domination of meme language really bringing people together, or is avoiding real words driving them further apart?

Jarod Majeika, age 19, peruses Twitter, where he has more than 29,000 followers. He tweets most frequently about movies, music, and pop culture in general. Most tweets rely on images as part of dramatic reactions to events. Photo by James Tyner

There’s a concept in linguistics that purports to connect our language and our thoughts. It’s called linguistic relativity, and while the details are still controversial, there seems to be evidence that the language you speak correlates with the way you think. As summarized by the Stanford Center for the Study of Language and Information, “language embodies a worldview.”

“The effect is not huge, but it is significant,” said Deniz Rudin, a USC linguistics professor. There have been experiments comparing populations who speak different languages with gendered nouns. Objects that carry male pronouns in a certain language are more often described with “masculine” adjectives by its speakers, and vice versa, but it’s not clear whether there’s a causal relationship, Rudin said, and it’s virtually impossible to test in a controlled way because language and culture go hand-in-hand.

“It could be that particular ways of thinking habitually deployed in a community that speaks the language have an effect on the development of the features of the language,” he said.

When it comes to the topic at hand — extremely emotional language online — we run into the same problem. It could be that words like “shook” and “attacked” drive people toward excitability in reacting to what they see, or that people who have “hair-trigger extreme emotions” tend to gravitate toward that language online, Rudin said.

But in some ways, the existence and direction of a causal relationship doesn’t really matter. Coye Cheshire, a professor and social psychologist at the UC Berkeley School of Information, said this “ability to use language and learn from it […] allows us to feed off of things that we already have inside of us.”

“If there is something about participating in online platforms that provides an outlet for that kind of behavior,” he said, “whichever direction it might be going in terms of the linguistics could still have an effect on our ongoing perceptions and behavior.”

Take it from the teens

Taking part in online communities can have unintended consequences.

That behavior can be wide-ranging. Though 10 years ago a meme was something simple or funny — like David After Dentist or I Can Has Cheezburger? — memes today aren’t just for fun. They have political motives, they express emotional trauma, they satirize outlandish cultural moments. And the language of the meme — and of the internet — has shifted as well. Things used to be simple, with acronyms like LOL and LMAO that were the typical internet reactions of their day. Now, there are subcultures within subcultures, and accounts on all social media platforms have built businesses on reacting to goings-on and creating #relatable content.

2008 meme: -troll face-

2017 meme:"when your depression and anxiety hit you" -insert gif of man getting hit by train and ran over by a bus-

— ^_^ (@BBWslayer666) April 13, 2017

Today’s internet users are bombarded by endless reactions to images, movies, memes, TV shows, YouTube videos, gifs, news events, family drama, etc., and we’ve developed a specialized language to interact with this glut of information and communicate with others about it. In an arms race for attention, sensational language like “SCREAMING” comes to stand out.

“I feel like a lot of these words come from trying to emphasize your message,” said Raleigh Slyman, a 20-year-old Georgia Tech student. “If you use a really strong word, it might sound more confident, it might garner you more attention if you say […] ‘I feel attacked’ [rather than ‘I feel insulted.’]”

Dmitri Williams, who studies social impacts of new media at USC Annenberg, said stronger emotional language online comes from a need to compensate for things the internet lacks, like the body language and emotional cues that humans are primed to respond to in their interactions.

“Because we’re evolved to communicate with each other, […] we find workarounds,” Williams said. “They’re trying to express some of this depth that the medium blocks them from doing.”

But seeking attention through those language workarounds only goes partway toward connection. People online want the thrill of attention but not the risk. Saying “I feel attacked” is a way to reveal partially how you feel and join others who are part of the culture, but it stops short of answering why you feel that way.

The design of modern social media encourages us to join communities of like-minded people and, once we’re there, to be authentic and express ourselves. Memes and the language that surrounds them have come to be community-tailored too, and a group of people all “screaming” at the same thing can find some comfort in not standing alone. University of Sussex professor Tim Jordan writes that on the internet, “the style of a communicant must be recognizable for communication to be possible.” A shared lexicon, then, helps people “create an identity by being heard.”

Language in action

These tweets show how over-emotional language is used online in context

Swipe left to view more posts ➡️

But in conforming our language and behaviors to the standards of a community, it’s possible we’re losing something of ourselves along the way. In a culture dominated by relatability and authenticity, relatability is in many cases a performance. In all of its sensationalism, this internet language deflects attention from the real people behind the words and encourages users to join into a game, overplaying their emotions to feel part of the group.

“There is a level of individuality that we lose, because [with] so much of Twitter, […] you all become very homogeneous,” said Majeika, the former Vine creator. “You say the same things, and you interact with the same things, you follow the same people. So there is kind of that gap or chasm between what we actually present online and what we really do feel, because that gap is usually filled by some phrase or some concept that we all share and understand but [is] something that has just kind of been put upon us rather than us creating it ourselves.

“I think I can still be vulnerable, but I feel like in many ways I have to punctuate personal or vulnerable stories with one of those shared languages,” he said.

Cheshire, the social psychologist, referenced work done on interpersonal interaction in the mid-twentieth century by sociologist Erving Goffman, known for developing the concept of “dramaturgy.” The basic idea, as Cheshire explained, is that each interaction is like “a performance on a stage.”

“You prepare yourself on the back stage,” he said, “then you present yourself in a social interaction at the front stage. Which is not always the way you’re actually feeling or thinking, but you present yourself in a way that you believe you would like to be perceived by others.

“The question is whether some people might be performing so much that they lose of track of — if there is a core person — who they actually are. Or they might feel stress as a result of that because they’re having to maintain it. It’s hard.”

A Vine star is born

Growing up online has connected Jarod Majeika to a worldwide community

A Vine star is born

Growing up online has connected Jarod Majeika to a worldwide community

Jarod Majeika, now a junior at USC, has produced content for audiences online since his early teens. He has cultivated an audience online and sometimes feels pressured to maintain the persona they expect, but he said he’s grateful to feel connected to an online community.

For years, researchers have tried to identify whether communication via the internet is good for individual people on an emotional level. Some research has linked higher reliance on online communication to higher rates of depression and a sense of loneliness, and Cheshire said that social media does sometimes “lead to problems we’ve never quite seen before,” like a rise in discrete, closed-off online communities whose perceptions of overall society become skewed as a result.

“It’s one of the paradoxes of the internet,” Rudin said, “where on the one hand, everything is on it. On the other hand, it’s very easy to set yourself up so you get a constant feed of only one thing.”

For people whose one thing consists of metaphors like being “attacked” or “shook,” it’s possible that the exposure might have some effect on perceptions or behavior. Ying Lin, a sociology researcher at the USC Mind and Society Center, said the use of over-emotional language online reminded her of research done on how using metaphors to describe a topic affects behavior related to that topic.

In one 2014 study, social psychologists looked at “enemy metaphors” used to describe cancer, things like the “war on cancer” and “heroic battles” against the disease. Past research from the 1980s suggests that “metaphors shape and structure thought,” so this study looked at how the warlike language affected perceptions of cancer. Individuals in one group were asked what actions they would take to “fight against developing cancer,” while those in the other were asked about those to “reduce your risk.”

People who’d been suggested the enemy framing tended toward more active prevention methods, like physical activity, rather than passive methods like limiting consumption of alcohol and red meat. Because self-restraint isn’t normally associated with fighting an enemy, the researchers wrote, the metaphor makes those prevention strategies less appealing.

When it comes to language online, powerful metaphors abound, from feeling “personally attacked” to being “sedated” or “shook.” If an enemy metaphor like “battling” cancer can lead people away from passive prevention behaviors, what is the effect of a self-victimizing metaphor like being “attacked” online?

Kaveri Subrahmanyan, a psychology professor in the Children’s Digital Media Center at California State University, Los Angeles, said that for someone who is “generally more prone to emotional highs and lows,” too much exposure to extremely emotional language could have worrisome effects.

“There’s a concern that the excessive use of digital content could desensitize you,” Subrahmanyan said. “This has been a concern, for instance, with watching violent movies and playing violent games. It’s been a concern with consuming content about cutting and anorexia. It normalizes problematic behaviors.”

However, she said, the extent of the effect would vary based on the individual, and measuring any effect of online behaviors in a meaningful way is “really challenging.”

“We can’t expect that there’s the same effect for everybody,” Subrahmanyan said. “It’s really a sliver of kids who are most at risk.”

Ho said that she experienced the extreme language of the internet — “kill me” in particular — pervading her thoughts in the rest of her life. The phenomenon worried her enough that she chose to remove herself from the culture, taking a semester-long hiatus from Twitter.

“If you continue to use it when it’s not necessarily applicable and fall into the habit of using that language often, you kind of start stewing, and you can’t see any other way out,” Ho said. “Like as soon as one little thing happens, you’d say immediately ‘kill myself.’ I could see that kind of attitude throughout, like one person does something that’s kind of iffy and they’ll say, ‘oh, this person’s canceled.’ At first I bought into that kind of thinking too.

“I didn’t want that to influence my mental health for the semester, which I knew would be important to me,” she said. “And [my hiatus] did help me a lot.”

For Majeika, the former Vine creator, much of his online persona centers on his own struggles with anxiety and depression. In the six or so years of his teenage life that he’s spent in the public eye online, the positive feedback he receives for posting about mental health issues — in the form of likes, comments, and shares on Twitter and Instagram — has had the perverse effect of providing him encouragement to continue struggling and maintain the persona.

“In some ways, it does inhibit my growth because I don’t really grow from it,” Majeika said, “because I’m continuing to just post about it and not actually move forward.”

once i cure my depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia and eating disorder, get intensive outpatient treatment for my personality disorder, get a 4.0, suddenly inherit $6 million, and find constant creative inspiration, it truly is over for you hoes

— jarod (@jarodzsz) December 14, 2017

Majeika depicted being a person in the world as being a blank canvas largely “painted by what other people think.” And as an influential member of an online community where using over-emotional language is the norm, he said he feels pressured to use that language to fit in. It feeds a cycle of voices each trying to “stand out a little bit more.”

“We all kind of found ourselves here just because of the way we were raised, because of the way we interacted with the internet growing up,” Majeika said. “There is something that’s lost because of the way we talk to each other online. But it does in many ways bring us together, because I can say it and if someone else gets it then I know they share that same framework, that same online cultural experience, which I think is a very unique thing.”